Keeping up? It's increasingly difficult for the Joneses

A middle class O.C. family seemingly did everything right. Why then are they 'circling the financial drain'?

Dan Jones made it unscathed through his reconnaissance missions over Vietnam.

He wasn't as lucky after returning to the states. An unstable employee at Raytheon, where they both worked, shot Jones in the back.

"They thought I was dead," said Jones, 29 at the time.

He survived that experience, too. But he is having trouble surviving this economy.

Jones is a sharp, well-spoken guy with a strong resume and an even stronger desire to work, but his job drought is now entering its seventh year and his prospects are dimming.

Next month, he turns 66.

Dan's wife, Suzanne, told me about him. She saw my column about a 60-year-old Boeing employee who got laid off, like hundreds of his colleagues, and finds himself on the brink of losing his home and his hopes for a comfortable retirement.

"There's so many of us in similar circumstances out here," wrote Suzanne, saying that Dan had been laid off in 2008 and has been looking for work ever since.

He goes to job fairs. He joins networking groups. He relentlessly fishes for jobs on the Internet.

And he can't catch a break.

"We're circling the financial drain," said Suzanne, who works three days a week in a medical/clerical job and would take a better deal if she could find one. But at 57, age is not working in her favor, either.

In their long, unbroken fall from the middle class, the Joneses have lost just about everything. They had to sell their house in Huntington Beach at a low point in the market. Then they cashed in savings bonds and sold wristwatches and cameras.

"I sold my wedding ring, my engagement ring and my anniversary ring," said Suzanne.

"We'd be living in the car," Dan Jones said, but for the generosity of Suzanne's sister, a registered nurse who took them into her Huntington Beach home two years ago. But Dan and Suzanne would like to move on just as much as Suzanne's sister would like to get her privacy back, they told me when I went to visit last week.

Some people live beyond their means and dig a giant hole for themselves. What's so scary about the Joneses' cautionary tale is that they lived fairly responsibly and still went from well-situated to flat broke.

Dan Jones had decades of marketing and engineering success working for the likes of Mitsubishi and Samsung as well as Raytheon, making as much as $150,000 a year. When Samsung shut its Irvine plant, he took a six-month severance and figured he'd quickly find another job.

At 59, he didn't feel old. And with six or seven more years on someone's payroll, he'd be able to sell the house in Huntington Beach, trade down to less expensive digs in the desert, and live happily ever after with Suzanne on their Social Security and 401(k)s.

"We were almost there," said Suzanne. "We were within six years of it."

But the "perfect storm," as Dan Jones calls it, was gathering on the horizon.

"Everything was collapsing in my profession," he said. "Companies just froze because they didn't know what was going to happen. So they started laying people off left and right, and there were no jobs."

The market crash mugged their 401(k)s. Their home equity, another big piece of their retirement plan, shrunk by about $200,000, but they had no choice but to sell low.

Dan Jones filed "hundreds of applications" without landing a thing. He even set his sights lower, applying for retail jobs. He thought he was close to getting lucky at The Home Depot, but lost out yet again.

They did make one mistake in managing their misfortune, said Jones, and he greatly regrets it.

"It was extremely stupid, but a lot of people do it," said Jones. "I started to pay bills with credit cards."

"We raided everything else first," said Suzanne, so it wasn't as if they had any good choices.

Dan Jones wanted to hold out until 66 to draw Social Security, but had to opt for the lower monthly amount of $1,750 when he turned 62. They now live on that check along with Suzanne's monthly net of about $600, and they still have $20,000 in credit card debt.

She takes no comfort in knowing they are not alone.

"He's got a friend who lives in a garage," said Suzanne. "We know lots of people in the same predicament and they're all good people, highly educated but over 45, and they can't get their foot in the door."

Dan is one of hundreds of unemployed managers and executives who attend regular meetings of CafeNet, a job networking group set up by Cindy Pickens when she lost her executive position at a computer company in 2002.

Prospects for executives have improved since then, said Pickens. And yet CafeNet grew from one chapter to three and has 1,000 members. Some find their way back into the workforce, but it can be harder for someone like Jones, she said. Employers look askance at anyone who's been out of work for several years.

Be that as it may, Jones still hustles. He's mastered social media, not just to stay sharp on modern marketing strategies but to keep his name in play. He set up his own consulting business and has done a few marketing jobs for clients on a contingency basis. If and when they make money, he gets a cut.

"When he was working with me, he would go out of his way to make sure things were done and done right," said Ken Colby, who was Jones' last boss at Samsung and had nothing but good things to say about him. "He always had ways to help support our business initiatives and came up with ideas that were different than what we were doing."

When I asked Jones his thoughts on what's wrong with this economy, in which an accomplished man is reduced to camping out with a relative, he began by saying too many people are going after too many jobs.

But as he warmed to the topic, he said he thinks Washington should do less posturing on social issues and less feuding over partisan differences. And it should do more to address the increasing concentration of wealth and the cracks in the foundation. Last week, he bristled when he read the story about SoCal Edison's plan to dump 400 information technology employees and outsource the jobs to two companies in Bangalore and Mumbai.

"I'm angry at the government," said Jones. He began to choke up. "They let companies do that and I understand those companies need to stay competitive. But there needs to be some kind of compromise. What's happening is that this small core of people is getting wealthier and the middle class is going away. The promise that your kids would have a better life than you, with the house, the two cars, the dog and everything else, it's gone."

Jones told me his prayer is that he'll finally land something, and he and Suzanne can reconstruct their modest dreams.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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